The Independent Archive: Indian village justice fails a lowly beauty

9 September 1989 Tony Allen-Mills, in Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, describes a case which highlights the failure of the legal system to protect the rural poor
IF SHE hadn't been so lovely she might have lived. But Nayeema was a rare beauty, a slender, dark-skinned teenager with haunting sable eyes and a fine figure that the loose folds of her ragged sari could not disguise. One day Nayeema went to bathe at a hand-pump near her parents' mud-walled shack in the isolated Uttar Pradesh village of Sikri. The water splashed down her throat and soaked the sari to her skin.

That innocent, alluring moment was to lead to Nayeema's death. It set in motion a heartbreaking sequence of events that tore a simple Muslim villager from the obscurity of rural penury and plunged her into the centre of a national debate about Indian justice.

With a general election approaching, the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, has already pledged to revise India's overloaded legal system to protect the poor in rural areas. With his eye on the millions of women who will be casting votes in village polls, Mr Gandhi confessed last week: "One cannot honestly claim that justice is available in villages at the grass- roots level . . . in the coming years we have to see that justice is done." Such pledges have been heard before. For Nayeema, the bewitching 16-year-old daughter of a hard-working farm labourer, they were all in vain.

As Nayeema was washing off the dust at the Sikri hand-pump last March, she spotted a peeping Tom. It was a neighbour, a man named Sattar. According to Nayeema's mother, Zamila Begum Islamuddin, there was an angry exchange. Nayeema told Sattar not to spy on her again. Although only 16, she had been married for two years to a man from a nearby village. She had returned to Sikri to pay a short visit to her mother. A few days later seven men, three carrying guns, arrived at her mother's house. Zamila recognised one of them as Abbas, a relative of Sattar. She named three others as Manga, Pulender and Moti, all from Negala Duheli. They ordered Zamila to prepare food, then left with Nayeema. Zamila never saw her daughter again.

The mother went to the police, and some of the men were arrested. But they were swiftly released. The family began to suspect the kidnappers enjoyed official protection. Some of them were friendly with Sayeed ul- Rahaman, the village pradhan, or head man. He was linked to Sayeed ul- Zama, the Home Minister for Uttar Pradesh state. Sikri was part of Mr ul-Zama's constituency. There were even rumours that Nayeema was being kept for Mr ul-Zama's use.

Weeks passed with no word. Then Nayeema's father attracted the support of Mahendra Singh Tikait, the leader of a regional farmers' union. Last year Mr Tikait led 100,000 protesting farmers to New Delhi for a two-week protest. When his followers marched at a town near Sikri in early August, the police responded with a baton charge and pushed two tractors into an irrigation canal. The farmers were incensed and, finally, five months after her disappearance, Nayeema's name was on every newspaper's front page.

Nine days later, the girl's body was found dumped in a field. She was dressed in a bridal sari and had a bullet hole through her neck. Attached to her wristwatch was a letter from her killers. It said she had been killed because her kidnappers were afraid of retaliation by Mr Tikait's farmers. After a cursory police examination Nayeema's body was released for cremation. At a poignant ceremony attended by 100,000 farmers, her ashes were placed inside a brick memorial built by Mr Tikait's supporters.

The response of Mr ul-Zama, the minister initially responsible for investigating the case, blamed Mr Tikait for starting his agitation. He suggested Nayeema would have lived had the farmers not made the kidnapping a national issue. He also denied he was involved.

Mr Tikait and his farmers continue to demonstrate daily beside Nayeema's tomb. But other issues beckon, and interest in the case is fading. Police are officially conducting inquiries, but the men identified by Zamila remain free. No one in Nayeema's family holds out much hope of justice. They cling to memories of her loveliness and move on with their lives. It was just another murder in the Indian countryside.

From the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Saturday 9 September 1989